Why Your 4 Year Old Can’t “Visit” My Sick Dog

This is kind of an “in the moment” post because it illustrates how we tend to “push” kids on dogs when both the kid and the dog are quite happy in their own space.

Here’s how it played out:

Main Characters:

  • My 14.5 year old dog a week out from surgery to remove a (thankfully benign) tumor
  • Nice, well-mannered four year old boy who I love dearly and is a frequent visitor to our home
  • Boy’s grandmother who I also love dearly
  • And me, of course
I'm hiding in the bathroom because I want to be left alone!


  • Dog is off by herself in a back bathroom trying to sleep with her inflatable cone around her neck
  • Boy comes to visit with his grandmother
  • Our new little dog (Grandpa’s dog) comes to the door as I let them in.  Betty remains in the bathroom.

Boy“Where’s Betty?”

Me“She’s not feeling well so she’s resting in another room.”

Boy“Oh.”  (Looks around for something else to do.)

Grandmother to Boy “Why don’t you go see where Betty is and say ‘hi’ to her?”

Boy takes a couple of steps down the hall.

Me“I think she’d rather be by herself today.  She’s not feeling well and needs to rest. “

Boy stops and goes back to doing something else.

Grandmother“OK, then just go look in on her and say a quick ‘hello.'”

Me to Boy“When a dog is staying by herself, she just needs her own space.  If she comes out, we can say ‘hello,” but it has to be the dog’s idea to come over.”

Grandmother seems a little hurt.  Boy says, “OK!” and finds something else to do.

Me trying to explain to Grandmother: “I don’t want him learning it’s OK to go in search of dogs in other people’s homes.  That’s a habit that can lead to trouble down the road.  He may get bitten by a dog that wants to be left alone.”

Grandmother“He’s just so good and full of compassion when I am sick and I wanted him to see how Betty looks so he will understand.”

Me“It is particularly important that young children not be encouraged to approach sick dogs.  He’s only four years old and will likely come up with his own variations if this is encouraged.  I don’t want him practicing this and being praised for it and having it turn into him wanting to do MORE with a dog that doesn’t feel well, like giving a dog a hug…This is not safe for him.”

I’m afraid I hurt my friend’s feelings a little bit.  I know she meant well and this is a very nice boy who follows directions and behaves well with my dogs.  Nothing bad was likely to happen in that moment.  But it’s these individual, seemingly innocuous moments that lead to a young child acquiring the habit of approaching dogs, specifically in this case, dogs who are sick.

This is routinely praised and encouraged by adults as an example of being “good with dogs,” but it sets up these good kids for a higher risk of a bite down the road.  The boy was perfectly OK with not going over to my dog — it made sense to him that she didn’t feel well and wanted to be by herself. We could have easily reinforced that idea and made him feel proud to be a good friend to Betty by letting her have her space, and thus made it more likely that he would do the same with someone else’s dog.

Is there ever a situation where an adult should be telling a young child to approach a dog?  Think it through before you do it — you may be planting the seeds for future behavior that puts the child at risk.  And for what purpose?  Good intentions abound, I know, but today’s cuteness may have a price to pay later.  No one wants to hear it now, but I can guarantee that when there’s a bite, we would all do anything to go back in time and undo it.  Now’s your chance to not let it happen in the first place!

Dogs need space.

Kids should never “close the gap” on dogs.

Pass it on.

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  1. Excellent post!

    I think that not a lot of people are willing to rock the boat with human acquaintances, and so allow risky things like this to happen with their dogs. And I think a lot of human acquaintances don’t much think of dogs as having feelings and motivations, other than the negative ones. I’m glad your visitor-boy was able to accept what you were saying easier than his grandmother.

    I hope that Betty gets well soon!

    1. Hi Jen – you are right that there is a lot of “social pressure” on people to go along. In the moment, it DOES seem easier to say, “What’s the big deal?” and let it go. I certainly felt that way with my friend when she kept persisting. Maybe the more we all stick to our guns, the less comfortable other people will feel pressuring us and it will seem “normal” that people enforce boundaries for their dogs.

  2. Get well soon, cute, smiling Betty.
    She’s lucky Nurse Madeline is strictly limiting her visitors in order to ensure a calm, healing environment.

    1. She does look smiley here, doesn’t she? I was trying to get a picture of her zonked out, but she woke up and smiled for the camera instead. I want her to be confident that she can go off by herself when she needs to without being pursued. Ha — I’d like that for MYSELF some days when it seems everyone needs to be within three feet of me!

  3. Thank you for this. As a Service Dog user I cant tell you the number of times that I have had parents and grandparents send their children over to “pet the doggie” while I am out with my dog. I was ince sitting in a mall at one of the rest areas, with my dog sleeping at my feet while I took a break from walking and read my book. A woman with 3 young children (5 and under) walks by and one of the children see the dog and points it out to the other 2. The mother then says “Ok, you go visit with the doggie and I will be right here in this store”. The kids (later find out the oldest was 5, the youngest 3) come running over and start grabbing at and going to pet my dog. I stopped them and tried to educate them about approaching a Service Dog as well as just running up to any sleeping dog or dog they don’t know. The mother was in the store for over 15 minutes while the children “hung out with me” and my dog. I don’t know why this mother thought that I would just watch her children while she shopped. I let the kids pet my dog after I woke her up and released her to go say hello to them. This is just another example of people who don’t understand proper manners between kids and dogs, and the adults encouraging inappropriate behavior.

    1. Then, Clarice, you’ll definitely like my earlier post on “National Say, ‘No You Can’t Pet My Dog’ Day!” It sounds like you were very kind in a challenging situation.

  4. EXACTLY!!! I wish more people had the courage to “let sleeping dogs lie” and not be bothered when they clearly would rather be alone. Kudos, Madeline, for risking being “weird” for the present comfort of Betty and the future safety of that child. I hope Grandmother forgives you soon! It’s hard, learning new ways of thinking about kids and dogs, but you do SUCH a great job teaching it! Thanks. Catherine Steinke

  5. Refreshing, both your attitude towards your dog as the fact tha you had your 14.5 year old operated instead of witholding medical care because of old age.
    I get really miffed if people are disrespectfull of my rules about my dogs in my own home.

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